Editor’s Note: Reaz Mahmood is the faculty advisor for Portland State Vanguard, and his opinions come from his experience.
Student media and other student-run organizations at Portland State struggle to stay afloat due to delays in the Contract & Procurement Services (CAPS) office. In addition to the work of its editors, student media publications like Portland State Vanguard rely on paid contributors to write content.
Contributor contracts must be fully processed before contributors can work and get paid. For the last several months, the processing time of contributor contracts has taken—on average—around three months to complete. This has left editors to do the bulk of the writing, resulting in editors experiencing burnout and intense stress. This has even prompted some to quit entirely.
However, Vanguard is not alone in this struggle. These delays have negatively impacted basically every student-run organization and some additional services.
According to Aimee Shattuck—the executive director of Student Activities and Leadership Programs (SALP)—these issues have existed since at least 2001. CAPS pays outside vendors for university events in addition to the contracts which permit them to pay student workers.
In recent years, due to delays in contract processing, some vendors have gone months without being paid for their labor and now refuse to do any work for PSU whatsoever.
Shattuck said many university events, performers, caterers and other laborers must complete a personal service invoice (PSI) to get paid. Even last year, Shattuck said PSU advised these workers to submit these contracts 20 business days—roughly four weeks—in advance of the event, which she said is an unreasonable requirement. Shattuck explained how this was an issue with the catering service used for Party in the Park, which was held at the beginning of this school year.
“SALP sent in a contract on Sept. 11, 2023, to pay Bashas [Mediterranean Cuisine] for food at Party in the Park,” Shattuck said. “It was submitted three weeks before the event. This is a vendor that has close ties to Portland State and has been providing the Party in the Park catering for many years. It took seven weeks for the contracts office to process the paperwork only after the vendor told me that she was two months behind on her mortgage because we had not paid her. She had to put up quite a bit of expense to feed 3,500 people.”
Shattuck said it creates a reputational risk for PSU when they cannot pay the workers and performers they rely on for such events. With student media, who have been waiting months for contributor contracts to process, this creates an issue with student engagement. Out of the 40 contracts waiting to be processed by CAPS, Shattuck said only three contracts have been processed, and she said those were submitted back in July.
“There are a whole bunch of students who want to participate and are wanting to get engaged with student media, and we’re not able to work with them yet, because there’s a bottleneck in one office,” Shattuck explained. “There’s a desire and pressure to have this engaged campus and to have students be involved in planning events and have a vibrant campus life. And there is a bottleneck—for whatever reason—in one office that’s preventing us from doing that… Now we’re losing students because they’re waiting so long, and then we’re losing editors because they’re so stressed out. That’s… student media, but it’s happening with other student organizations and programs as well.”
Brian Roy—the vice president of risk management and contracting at PSU—explained how understaffing at the CAPS office is the root of many of these issues.
“CAPS is staffed in a way that makes it challenging to get through the amount of work we have and what the university expects from our contracts offices,” Roy said. “We’re really thinly staffed, and I think you’ll find—on the operations side of the university—we have a lot of departments that are challenged by the amount of work that often exceeds the hours that the people have to be able to do the work. And even in the best case, CAPS is really challenged to get through all of the contracts that the university expects it to.”
Roy said CAPS has succeeded in streamlining the contracting process, and—up until earlier this year—had reached a point where they could process contracts more efficiently and quickly. CAPS lost two employees earlier this year, which has exacerbated the issues and resulted in a three-month processing time for most contracts.
“We’re working on filling those positions, but you can probably imagine that—when you take a department that is struggling to keep its head above water—when you lose two people, it makes a massive difference,” Roy said. “Unfortunately, the Vanguard contributor contracts are not the only ones affected. We’re really doing the best we can. It’s a lot of people that are trying to get through as much work as possible, but it’s only exacerbated our problems. We’re working on filling those positions. I’m hopeful that we’ll have at least one of them filled relatively soon.”
In addition to filling these open positions, Roy said CAPS is working to develop a more efficient contracting process. However, he said they will need more resources and staff in order to remedy the issue altogether.
According to Roy, most of his peers in other departments at PSU agree that they would benefit significantly from more staff.
“Losing people is always difficult and creates openings, but the work doesn’t change,” Roy said. “So, you have the same amount of work being distributed across fewer people. We’re working as quickly as we can to get those spots filled. That will absolutely help, [but] when you have a department that’s staffed very thinly, all it takes is a little disruption like this for things to slow down. I’m optimistic that—once we get these positions filled—we’ll start to work through that backlog, and before long we’re going to be back to a more reasonable amount of time for the customer. That’s my expectation.”
Reaz Mahmood—the coordinator of student media at PSU—has overseen all five of PSU’s student-run media organizations for over 10 years. He explained how—even though the processing time of contracts tends to ebb and flow over the years—the contracts are currently taking the longest time to process in the time he has been here, which he speculates is due to university-wide understaffing.
“In general, PSU has a perpetual understaffing problem,” Mahmood said. “Staff are routinely put in positions where they have to exceed their own reasonable capacity. So, if the contracting office is experiencing something like that, then maybe you have some people who are doing the best they can and perhaps just don’t have enough people to handle the workload.”
While these contracting issues continue to affect student workers and others contracted by the university, such issues also impact the campus community as a whole.
Mahmood said he has seen students’ who apply to be contributors lose their enthusiasm for engaging in student media, resulting in less and less student engagement, because “the institution didn’t seize on that momentum to give [students] a great experience.”
For student media, Mahmood said this creates issues which may affect the quality and timeliness of the content these organizations aim to produce, and also results in unreasonable workloads for editors.
“The fewer students you have in these roles not only impacts the opportunities for those specific students, but ultimately it’s the job of a media organization to put out content that enriches campus—whether that’s entertainment or whether that’s news through quality journalism,” Mahmood said. “If you have fewer people in the journalistic process, then you not only don’t put stories out there as quickly as you could, so you lose the timeliness element. But you might not have the capacity to go after stories that are more impactful, because those take a lot of time and effort—sometimes very collaborative effort—to do a good job on… In some cases, there might be lots of things that just aren’t being covered, and it’s because people don’t have the capacity.”
Shattuck explained that a wide variety of things could contribute to the issues in CAPS, but that she hopes they can get the help they need to establish a more efficient process.
“I don’t know what kind of pressure they’re under, I just know how it’s impacting us,” Shattuck said. “I want them to get whatever it is that they need so that they can fix it, and we can all go back to not having this bottleneck.”